- Susan Elaine Jones
Wombwell's travelling menagerie
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
So I was browsing the book "Catalogue of the Osteological Portion of the Specimens in the Anatomical Museum of the University of Cambridge" by Professor William Clark 1862 (because who doesn't take a little light reading to bed) and became a bit too alert for sleep as I noticed some of the donor information.
There are various worthy collectors with magnificent names (like Sir Busick Harwood) or magnificent facial hair, all of whom I'm looking into for a museum research project. And some weird stories which just tantalise - like the head of a Zebu that was donated by Earl Fitzwilliam from Wentworth Park, or the head of a gilded mummy presented by John Anthony of Caius College, and the mask of the face of Isaac Newton from the syndics of the University Library.
But, Wombwell was a name that jumped out at me. Only because it is a also the name of a village near where I grew up.
And somehow never connected with the nearby Penistone. (I love looking at maps as they so often have little gems of humour
- Wombwell and Penistone are linked by Hermit Hill. I wish it was Come by Chance instead, but that is in the Americas, dangerously close to Goose Close and Woody Island.)
But in this case Wombwell isn't the place, but a George Wombwell with his travelling menagerie. In the early 1800s he toured the country and the "major fairs" (Hull, Nottingham Goose fair and Bartholomew fair in London) with his wonderous creatures - which included Elephants, an Indian Rhino, Llamas, Panthers, Leopards, Lions, Hyena and a Kangaroo.
It seems that where-ever he was when something died, he would find a way to make a profit from it. The Cambridge Zoology Museum has the Indian Rhino skeleton and a Llama skeleton from him. Aberdeen Zoology Museum has a tiger skeleton. And, a lovely story from wikipedia, one year at Bartholomew's fair, his elephant had died, and a rival menagerie display advertised "the only live Elephant at the Fair". Not to be outdone, Wombwell trumpeted "the only DEAD Elephant at the Fair" and won the crowds; as the live Elephant could be seen anytime, but there is a finite amount of time that crowds can approach and poke a dead elephant.
Over 70 years his menagerie travelled to delight and amaze victorian crowds, and to deposit the bones of his oddities where-ever he might. He is buried in Highgate cemetery, with a statue of his beloved lion, Nero, resting on his tomb.
Since publishing this blogpost, and struggling with the Déjà vu I felt when I saw the Wombwell Menagerie page; I was reminded by my museum colleague Geoff that we had previously found in the stores a lion skeleton (unmounted) with a note that it came from Wombwell Menagerie! Also possibly a male lion/tiger hybrid. That was back in early 2020, in the days when we left the house and went to real places outside. You remember, the first year of quarantine...
(yeah, that cartoon seemed pretty funny in 2020.... not so much now, eh?)
Norwich Castle and Museum has a load of taxidermy and specimens from Bostock and Wombwell's travelling menageries too. Which I sort of should have known because I took this picture of one of their display cases in 2016... showing some sort of spotty cat, lion/tiger hybrid cub, kangaroo, red panda, raccoon and what have you!
I hope someday someone puts together a nice inventory of what they had and where they all ended up.